Sixers lose to Wizards in first of hopefully many respectable losses this season

Sixers lose to Wizards in first of hopefully many respectable losses this season

The Golden State loss was embarrassing. Half-hearted offense, quarter-hearted defense, giving up open looks and highlight plays and letting eight-year Sixer Andre Iguodala have arguably his best-ever game on the Wells Fargo Center court wearing another team's jersey...not so good, Al. We want to lose this year, sure, but we don't want to have to lose like that.

Last night, I'd say, was infinitely preferable. Yes, they failed to kill off the ailing Washington Wizards, and yes, they probably could have gotten a hand up on defense or a body back in transition a couple more times than they did--giving up 116 points on your home floor is rarely totally justifiable--but they at least fought back throughout, kept it close for at least three quarters, and ultimately let themselves get beat by a more talented team. In the end, it's all good.

John Wall--the boy can ball. After an exceptional first half against the Sixers last week, the former #1 overall pick (and ostensible Evan Turner rival of sorts) played four strong quarters tonight against the Liberty Ballers, flashing the blinding speed and excellent drive-and-dish instincts that make him so spellbinding in the open court, but also showcasing a shooting stroke rarely seen across his first three seasons in the league, hitting 5-8 from downtown, easily his career high in threes for a game. (For reference, Wall went 3-42 from deep for the entire 2011-'12 season.)

All that said, he didn't outshine Evan Turner all that badly this time. Unlike most of their matchups, in which it's been abundantly clear who went #1 overall in 2010 and who went #2, Evan was equally on his game tonight, showcasing his much-improved mid-range game and not forcing matters in the half-court, ending with 24 points (on sparkling 9-13 shooting, including six free throw attempts and even his first three-pointer of the season), seven rebounds and four assists, with just one turnover. Evan is now shooting a mind-blowing (and likely unsustainable) 61% from two-point range this season, showing just how much he's improved his overall shot selection in Brett Brown's offense.

Evan's production last night was mostly matched by Spencer Hawes, who continued his strong start to the season with 23 points (on 9-16 shooting) with 13 points, five assists and a couple blocks--though he also chipped in six TO's, at least two or three of which were of the worst kind of head-smacking Hawesian quality. Michael Carter-Williams similarly put up big numbers, including 19 points, seven assists and five boards, but his shot selection was a little suspect at times, and he needed 21 attempts for his 19 points.

Perhaps the best sign of the night for the Sixers was that James Anderson finally got himself off the schneid a little, hitting a couple threes and scoring 13 points total, easily his best production in a Sixers game this season, amidst not particularly stiff competition. Really, of the Sixers' main offensive cogs, the only one who couldn't really find a groove last night was previous Wizard-killer Thaddeus Young, who struggled through a 3-11 night and couldn't seem to find himself any room to sneak in around the basket, getting badly outmuscled on both ends by the Washington frontcourt of Nene and Marcin Gortat.

And really, it wasn't the offense that failed the Sixers tonight, it was the defense. Slow rotations, missed assignments and failures to get back in transition were the biggest culprits--though admittedly, much of the latter had to do with the Sixers' 20 turnovers on the evening, which started far too many easy looks back the other way. Seven Wizards scored in double figures, which probably means that the defensive blame is across-the-board for the Sixers for this one.

But whatever. Plenty of teaching points for Brett Brown in this one, and plenty of Big Macs for the folks in attendance. It was a fun game to watch, it further inflated the stats of eventual trade targets Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes, and in the end, we're one loss closer to contending for Wiggins, Randle and Parker. It's all love, and we can only hope for more of the same for the rest of the season.

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

CLEARWATER, Fla. – You hear it a lot at this time of year.

This is a big year for (fill in the name).

The 2017 season will be a big one for a lot of Phillies. This team remains an active construction site building for a better day, and the front office is sitting upstairs making a list of who fits into the future and who doesn’t.

So it’s a big year for Freddy Galvis to see if he can improve his on-base skills and hold off J.P. Crawford.

It’s a big year for Cesar Hernandez to see if his strong second half in 2016 was a young player really getting it, a sign of good things to come or just a three-month hot streak.

It’s a big year for Tommy Joseph as he tries to build on a nice big-league debut and hold off hard-charging Rhys Hoskins.

But when it comes to establishing oneself as a long-term part of this team’s foundation, Maikel Franco might have the biggest challenge of all among Phillies position players.

Yes, Franco belted 25 homers and drove in 88 runs last year, and those were surely impressive totals for a player of his age (23) hitting in a lineup where he was a marked man with little protection on a team that did not put many runners on base — that .301 team on-base percentage ranked 29th in the majors.

Despite huge upside, Franco’s game has some shortcomings. He is a free-swinger with poor on-base skills — he had a .306 on-base percentage last season and saw just 3.56 pitches per at-bat, ranking him 34th in the majors — and if you’ve been paying attention to what has come out of general manager Matt Klentak’s mouth in his 16 months on the job, you know that he values players who “control the strike zone” — both at the plate and on the mound.

Klentak and his lieutenants in the front office also place a premium on defense and Franco, despite good hands and a rocket arm, does not grade out near the top among major league third basemen, mostly because of his range, in advanced metrics. He ranked 12th out of 18 qualifying third basemen in runs saved (minus 6) last season.

Proof of this front office’s affinity for on-base skills and defensive acumen can be seen in center field and in that $30.5 million bulge in Odubel Herrera’s wallet. Herrera got on base more than 35 percent of the time his first two seasons in the majors and he grades out well in the advanced defensive metrics used by this team’s decision makers. All of this, along with his youth — he’s 25 — and projected upside led the front office to give Herrera a five-year contract extension this winter. Call it a statement of the type of player that this front office is looking for.

Franco can improve his flaws, particularly at the plate. He’s already hard at work trying to do so with new hitting coach Matt Stairs.

But why is it so pressing that he does? Why is this year such a big one for Franco?

Because he is entering his third season as a regular and the front office probably needs to know that the improvement is coming. Even as they construct their roster and prepare for the 2017 season here in spring training, this front office has its telescope out and is peering at future free-agent markets. Club president Andy MacPhail basically said that last week. In 2017, Maikel Franco has to convince this front office not to put Manny Machado in its sights. The superstar Baltimore Orioles third baseman will hit the free agent market after the 2018 season at the tender age of 26 and if you think his projected megadeal will be too rich for the Phillies then think again. Owner John Middleton has promised to spend big again when the team is ready to win.

In December at the winter meetings, Klentak was asked about some of the astronomical numbers being attached to the talent-rich free-agent class that is coming after the 2018 season. Could he see paying players $200 million, $300 million, $400 million when the time comes?

“I won’t put a dollar figure on anything,” Klentak said that day. “Markets develop the way that they develop and player values change over time. But I don’t have any doubt that this franchise will make significant investments when the time is right.”

Investing in a player like Machado could make long-term sense for the Phillies because he has the type of rangy body that often holds up past 35 and he could take his bat to first base when he’s older and done at third. Yes, it would take a long-term deal, probably at least seven years to get Machado.

Franco can throw cold water on this admittedly premature postulating by making improvements at the plate this season.

If he doesn’t show enough improvement or make the front office believe that it will eventually come, he could be a trade candidate and the Phillies could plug at third while they wait to make their run at Machado.

Franco knows his shortcomings and is working on them.

You could see it in batting practice Monday as he consciously tried to drive balls to right-center.

You could see it Friday as he stood in the outfield and talked hitting with new teammate Howie Kendrick. Kendrick mimicked a hitter driving the ball up the middle. Franco then did the same thing and nodded.

“I love to hit and sometimes I get excited,” Franco said. “I am concentrating on being more selective and using the middle of the field, not trying to do too much.”

Stairs has assigned Franco and Galvis to the same batting practice group as Kendrick.

“Howie has that gap-to-gap approach and I want Maikel and Freddy to see that every day,” Stairs said.

Stairs is convinced that if Franco stays with the approach he will “give away” fewer at-bats and become a tougher out in 2017 “and then you will see the on-base numbers come up.”

Franco needs to make these improvements if he’s going to have a long-range future with a team that is building through the concept of controlling the strike zone.

It’s a big year for him and the looming shadow of the ‘man’ in Baltimore makes it all that much bigger and intriguing.

MLB Notes: Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher to be guest instructors at Yankees spring training

MLB Notes: Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher to be guest instructors at Yankees spring training

TAMPA, Fla. -- Nick Swisher has arrived as a New York Yankees guest spring training instructor and Alex Rodriguez is on deck.

Swisher worked with outfielders Monday during his first day, which came three days after announcing his retirement as a player.

"I never have to worry about an 0 for 4 again," Swisher said with a smile. "It's great to be back."

A-Rod is set to make his initial appearance Tuesday.

"He's going to work with our players," New York manager Joe Girardi said. "Dispense knowledge that he has about how to play the game when he talks to the young kids, some of the expectations about how to deal with it. All the things Alex did well."

Rodriguez and Swisher were also guest instructors with the Yankees instructional league team last fall (see full story).

Giants: Cueto to miss start of spring training to be with ailing father
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Johnny Cueto remains in his native Dominican Republic helping his ailing father a week after pitchers and catchers reported to spring training.

The Giants plan to reach out to him to see how he is doing and whether he thinks he will pitch for his country in the World Baseball Classic.

San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy is not worried about Cueto's preparation. The right-hander has been throwing and working out regularly at the club's academy. Bochy says the World Baseball Classic is "starting to cause a slight concern."

Cueto signed a $130 million, six-year contract before last season. He went 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA and five complete games in 32 starts last year (see full story).

Red Sox: Moreland not worried about replacing Ortiz
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Mitch Moreland knows he's likely the only new player in Boston's lineup since David Ortiz retired at the end of last season.

He's just not listening to those who say he needs to replace Big Papi's lofty production.

"I try not to hear it because there's no replacing that guy," said the 31-year-old first baseman, who signed a $5.5-million, 1-year deal with the Red Sox during the offseason.

"I think it's going to be more of a team effort," he said. "Obviously we picked up two big arms as well, and it's a very balanced club."

After playing his first 6+ seasons in the majors with the Texas Rangers, Moreland is with a new organization for the first time in his career. So far, he said, the move has been smooth (see full story).

Mariners: Paxton expected to have a big year
PEORIA, Arizona -- Forget the batter's box, pitching mound or anywhere else between the chalk lines of a baseball field.

According to Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais, the location of one of the biggest obstacles blocking a player from consistently excelling isn't on the diamond.

"A lot of it with that last hurdle is between your ears," Servais said at the Peoria Sports Complex.

Servais believes starting pitcher James Paxton cleared that bar last season, and the Mariners are expecting the 28-year-old left-hander to be a major contributor in 2017 for a team that looks to end Major League Baseball's longest current postseason drought.

"He is one of the guys ready to take the next step and be a real anchor in our rotation," Servais said.

Paxton is preparing to improve on his 6-7 record and 3.79 earned run average of 2016. He enters spring training locked into a spot in the starting rotation. That puts him in a different position than in a year ago, when he was battling for a spot (see full story).